On behalf of Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT) and HCT volunteer astronomer Michael Payne, welcome to your very own backyard self-guided Spring Night Sky Tour.
We’ve been watching the daily forecast for clear skies and tonight’s night sky viewing looks promising with cloud cover diminishing after 8:00 p.m.
Usually we offer this celestial experience in person, but until we can do so again, enjoy your adventure navigating the stars tonight.
Have fun and if you’re inspired to share your night sky experience,
please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you see a shooting star, make a wish!
Please Click Here for your May Sky Map
Below are the Steps to Explore the Night Sky
Find a location away from streetlights and as open to the horizons as possible.
Please use the May Evening Sky Map and orient yourself. You will want to have the direction that you are facing at the bottom of the map.
To read the map, try to avoid using a white light flashlight, meaning avoid using a traditional handheld or your phone’s light. The bright light will dazzle your eyes and prevent your eyes from becoming adapted to the dark.
If you have it, use red cellophane to cover your flashlight lens so the map is just barely legible. Don’t worry, your eyes will adapt to the darkness. When your eyes are dark-adapted you will be able to see fainter stars and the shapes of the constellations will match those on the sky map much better.
Another way to explore the night sky is by using your smartphone and a free app called Star Walk.
In order to begin your tour, face north first and then turn the map so north is at the bottom of the sky map when you hold it in front of you.
One way to find north at night is to understand the location of Nantucket Sound relative to where ever you are viewing the sky. Nantucket Sound is on the south side of the Cape. So to face in a general northerly direction, turn yourself so the Sound is at your back.
Now let’s find the North Star, Polaris, the star that in the Northern Hemisphere is always aligned with true North.
The Big Dipper and Ursa Major
As you look up in the northern night sky, you will see a very bright pattern of seven stars that looks like an old-fashion water ladle. This is called The Big Dipper. These will be the brightest group of stars in the north well above the northern horizon.
Use the sky map to judge how high these stars are in the sky. Turn the sky map so the direction north is at the bottom of the map. Once you find this group of stars, then you will be able to move around the sky using the map very easily. At this time of year, the Dipper appears to be upside down. The Big Dipper is part of a larger constellation called Ursa Major (The Big Bear). The Dipper part of the constellation represents the Bear’s midriff and hindquarters and its legs extend from the bottom of the cup part of the dipper. Its feet are marked by three pairs of fainter stars. The bear’s forequarters extend beyond the front of the dipper.
To find the North Star, draw a line between the two stars at the end of the ladle and then extend it about five times that length. The only bright star in the sky where that ends is the North Star. It is not the brightest star, but it is always in that location very close to the North Celestial Pole. The Sky Map shows which two stars to use to find the North Star.
Make sure you take the time to correctly identify the North Star. A little practice and it will pop out from the night sky. Be sure to also locate it on the map.
Ursa Minor (The Little Bear)
The North Star is in another constellation called Ursa Minor (The Little Bear) and it’s also called the Little Dipper. It is much fainter than the Big Dipper and the shape isn’t as obvious as the Big Dipper, but if you are in a dark location you should be able to see it. Locate it on the map and then locate it in the sky, curving up towards the Big Dipper. A pair of brighter stars between the North Star and the Big Dipper known as The Guardians are in the ladle part of the Little Dipper.
Ursa Major and Minor are referred to as Circumpolar Constellations because they always circle the North Star and never set. While the North Star appears to never move, all other stars seem to circle around it, sometimes above, sometimes below and to the right or left.
The Eastern Sky
Now turn towards the east, 90 degrees to the right from the North Star and turn your map so East is at the bottom as you hold it. We are now going to identify several spring constellations.
You will probably notice a bright orange-red star in the sky. This is Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes and the fourth brightest star in the sky. Find Arcturus on the map.
Off to the left of Arcturus you should be able to see a kite shape outlined by stars with Arcturus at its bottom tip. You should also see Arcturus perched on a semi-circle of stars. This the constellation of Boötes, the Hunter. What is he hunting? He is hunting the bears, chasing Ursa Major and Minor as they circle Polaris. The word Arcturus is a corruption of Latin for “The Bear Driver.” Arcturus used to be applied to the entire constellation, but today it is only used for the bright star that you see.
Right below Boötes—to the east—is a little semi-circle of stars called Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. This was the crown the god Dionysus gave Ariadne when he married her after she was abandoned by Theseus after she helped him escape the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. It should be easy to locate.
To the right of Arcturus, you will be able to see a bright white star. This is the star Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo the Virgin.
It’s difficult to describe what Virgo looks like, but if you look at the map you will see some stars to the left of Spica representing Virgo’s legs and others above Spica representing her head, arms, and upper body. Take some time and the shape will emerge as you compare the map to the sky.
Virgo is a very ancient constellation and has always been associated with a Maiden. Because the Sun appears to be in this constellation during harvest time in September, the constellation has always had harvest and fertility associations. The name Spica is derived from Latin for a stalk of wheat.
Leo the Lion
Now turn the Sky Map so that south is at the bottom of the map and turn to the right, so Polaris is at your back and you are facing south.
Look almost directly overhead. You should be able to see what looks like a reversed question mark or sickle outlined in stars with a bright star at its bottom. This is the head and chest of Leo the Lion, another very ancient constellation, representing a lion. The bright white star at the bottom of the sickle is called Regulus, the Little King. This is a good name for the star since the Lion has always been associated with royalty.
To the left of the sickle are three stars that form a right triangle. These represent the hindquarters of Leo. The brightest star in the triangle, the furthest to the left, is called Denebola. This name is derived from Arabic and means “The Tail of the Lion.”
Hydra the Water Snake
Looking down from Regulus at about a 5 o’clock position, you should be able to see a fairly bright reddish star. This is Alphard, the brightest star in Hydra the Water Snake. Alphard is derived from its original Arabic name of Al Fard al Shujā, which means The Solitary One in the Serpent.
It you look up at about 2 o’clock from Alphard and use the map, you should see a little pentagon shaped cluster of stars. This is the head of Hydra. Hydra is a very long constellation that extends back though Alphard through a line of faint stars until it ends at the snake’s tail back in the east below Spica. This is the largest constellation in the night sky.
Corvus the Crow and Crater the Cup
Perched on the tail of Hydra below Virgo are two small constellations.
Corvus the Crow looks like a sail on a small boat. Use the map and it should be evident fairly low on the southern horizon. This is another very old constellation, a crow or raven was associated with the god Apollo and later with the raven released by Noah after the flood.
Crater the Cup consists of fairly faint stars to the right of Corvus. The name comes from the Greek—a wine cup or drinking bowl was called a “crater.” Look for a faint semi-circle of stars on top of two other stars perched on Hydra. It helps to think of the cup in profile.
This concludes our tour. We wish it could be in person and look forward to doing so when circumstances permit. The stars abide.
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars and see yourself running with them.”
~ Marcus Aurelius